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San Francisco Bay Area Roundup

Winter 2012 Performances - Part 1

by Heather Desaulniers

* "Aperture" - Samantha Giron Dance Project
    Kunst-Stoff Arts, San Francisco

* "So I Married Abraham Lincoln..." - Paufve | Dance
    Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco

* "Onegin" - San Francisco Ballet
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

* “TAO: The Art of the Drum” – presented by Stanford Lively Arts
Memorial Auditorium, Stanford, CA

January 20th - The family photograph is a strange and fascinating entity that we encounter on a daily basis. Whether planned, posed, spontaneous or silly, these images are absolutely everywhere - in homes, on smartphones and in the media. And, these photos can stir up so many questions. What was happening the day it was taken? Do the expressions accurately reflect the feelings and emotions of the subjects? Is it a true moment of reality or a completely staged scene? Who are these people and what is their story? Samantha Giron Dance Project's recent production, "Aperture", is a physical unfolding of and an unexpected look inside of one family system. She invites the audience into this intimate space where admiration, respect and truth are revealed and celebrated.

To frame the piece, Giron chose to infuse the music with audio clips of her father speaking about his family experience. The talking and the music came together in a unique score that drove home a message of joy. It was lovely to hear and see a family history where the story wasn't all damage, abuse and darkness. Instead, here was a memoir of love, support and security where both the cultural past and the opportunities of the future were valued. Yet, this positive family history was is no way a fairytale and still had its share of struggles and challenges. I think this honest and cohesive treatment of her chosen narrative is why "Aperture" commands attention - it was an exercise in personal truth-telling.

A walking motif recurred throughout the dance, and each time it appeared, we saw another piece of the puzzle. As "Aperture" opened, the three dancers (Vivian Aragon, Sophia Formosa and Jackie Goneconti) walked about the space frequently changing directions with purpose and confidence; they knew where they were going and wanted to pursue their particular path. At other times, the walking was much more reticent and was accompanied with a longing look over the shoulder, almost as if they weren't ready to leave and felt nervous about where they might find themselves next. This walking, whether in a circular or straight pattern, illustrated the dichotomy of moving on - to go towards something new, you must also leave something or someone else behind. Other choreographic sequences spoke to the complexity of this family system by indicating both collective support (where the dancers gently and repeatedly lifted each other) and individual pluck (when one dancer broke away from the trio to perform their own different movement).

Everything about "Aperture" is absolutely refreshing - from the narrative to the soundscape to the physical vocabulary. Samantha Giron is a dancemaker who is living, working and challenging her choreographic genre rather than being satisfied with the status quo. Take any opportunity you have to see the Samantha Giron Dance Project - they are the future of Bay Area modern dance.

January 29th - Historical dance pieces are a tricky undertaking. Often they turn out to be nothing more than a factual regurgitation, not much different than a television documentary. Or, they can go too far in the opposite direction, where the dance is so obscure that the historical component gets completely lost. The sweet spot is somewhere right in the middle, where a significant amount of the history is combined with creative translation. Paufve | Dance has discovered that successful equation with, "So I Married Abraham Lincoln...". The notion and construct of the 'First Lady' consumes Artistic Director Randee Paufve's newest work, with Mary Todd Lincoln as its primary example. "So I Married Abraham Lincoln..." contrasts the emotional and physical realities of being human against public and personal expectation. This dance is a comment on the difficult relationship between formality and truth.

The piece unfolded within four different spaces of the Dance Mission building - three short segments in the lobby and two different studios followed by the bulk of the work in the theater itself. As the audience was escorted to and from each of these performance areas, we were choreographically descending into the complex mind and spirit of Mary Todd Lincoln. The lobby portion, which was performed by members of Paufve | Dance's chorus, was very formal and public, both in presentation and movement style. Next came the overture where we encountered the seven company dancers. In their bodies and faces, a fractured and distant persona emerged - one that was clearly struggling to keep appearances while being pulled by the truth of the inner self. The third scene represented the eerie, dark corners of the psyche; the parts that we keep hidden from everyone and everything; the thoughts that we wish weren't there; the inner demons that haunt us. Lastly, we journeyed into Dance Mission's main theater to watch a clever and detailed narrative exploration of the First Ladies in general and Mary Todd Lincoln in particular.

We entered the theater and crossed the stage while the dance was already underway. As we were seated, the performers began a 'supermodel' type introduction of their characters, repeating the names of all the First Ladies as they walked an imaginary runway. The names were repeated throughout the work, which gave two opposing effects. Saying the names over and over again both emphasized and normalized these women in our consciousness, which is typical of our relationship to those in the public eye - they are in the spotlight and under scrutiny, yet the constant images and stories also have an anesthetizing property.

Paufve delved into the idea of 'posing' from both an internal and external perspective. In several instances, the dancers manipulated, pulled and posed each other in very specific and often uncomfortable stances. These positions were intrusions, inflicted and infringed upon them by external forces. In contrast, there were also sections of cluster pictures where the cast assembled in multiple frozen vignettes. Here was internal posing and an attempt to convey an acceptable image.

Incorporating multiple locales into full-evening contemporary dance works is very hip right now and this theatrical tool was especially a propos for "So I Married Abraham Lincoln...". Each new physical place emphasized how this dance was unpacking different emotional recesses of the human mind. It was a fantastic addition to an already strong narrative. But, moving the audience from place to place does bring with it a whole slew of logistical issues. Of main concern was the inability to actually see what was happening in the first two spaces. Views of the amazing choreography and brilliant dancing were obstructed because of too many people in too small a space at the same time; it was just too crowded.

January 31st - An evening of choreographic and artistic brilliance awaits at San Francisco Ballet's production of John Cranko's "Onegin". A superb choice to open the 2012 season, this full-length narrative ballet is a multi-layered composition that combines risky choreography and infinite thematics (thus appealing to both the traditionalist and the modernist). "Onegin" tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a gallant man whose visit to one village changes the course of many lives: his friend Lensky, Lensky's fiancée Olga, her sister Tatiana and also himself. Infatuation, tragedy, romance and selfishness plague the four primary characters throughout the three Acts, and as the curtain falls, the true message of Cranko's masterpiece becomes clear: do-overs are few and far between and the deep sadness and pain from previous actions can live forever. You may be able to move forward, but are still without reconciliation or resolution - your reality being not as you hoped because of consequences from long ago.

Act I is all about expectation. As the curtain rises, a family of women are revealed and in these opening moments, we come to meet the two sisters, Olga and Tatiana, who are each anticipating what their respective futures may hold. Olga, danced by the delightful Clara Blanco, is engaged to Lensky and has the giddy, hopeful, elated demeanor of any bride-to-be. Tatiana is quite the opposite, displaying a inner solitude and romantic imagination found in the pretend world of her books. Lensky arrives, bringing with him his dashing friend Onegin, who, for Tatiana, becomes the flesh and blood manifestation of her fantasy. In their first pas de deux, she is literally being swept off her feet in a series of breathtaking fan lifts and as she bourées towards her ideal, the tiny, quick steps are the epitome of exhilaration.

Act II brings the story to a place of reality and a harsh one at that. During Tatiana's birthday celebration, Onegin (Vitor Luiz) commences a dangerous game of flirtation with Olga. Those around him are deeply affected by his indifference and thoughtless cruelty, and Lensky (Gennadi Nedvigin) reacts by challenging Onegin to a duel. Nedvigin's solo prior to the duel was one of the most thrilling moments in the ballet. The movement was so infused with reflective emotion, almost as if the character knew this was the end. Cranko choreographed an incredibly difficult variation for this dramatic moment: all of the pirouettes finishing up in relevé passé and the posé arabesques followed by a pull into deep plié. There was such suspension and tension in these steps; Lensky trying desperately to hold onto hope, yet knowing and eventually giving into the fate that would likely befall him. The constant switching between en dedans (inside) and en dehors (outside) turns also provided a physical depiction of his internal turmoil. Nedvigin was fantastic and heartbreaking - I had eerie chills by the end of the sequence.

We come to "Onegin's" final Act to experience how the regret of the past still abides in the events of the present. Onegin once again encounters Tatiana; she has moved on and is now married to a Prince. The two meet for one last time to tell each other their truths - he of his love for her and she of her resolve to keep to her marital commitment. Vitor Luiz and Maria Kochetkova as Onegin and Tatiana then dance their ultimate pas de deux. Filled with constant spinning and abandoned lifts, this duet tells of longing, detachment, sorrow and inevitability. Yet, the most revealing moment was as they stood still hand-in-hand facing out to the audience - a tragic resolution, yet really, the only way their union could have turned out.

Performing any role in a John Cranko ballet requires an intense commitment to the combination of flawless technique and emotive depth. SF Ballet's "Onegin" reveals Maria Kochetkova as one of the great dance actresses of her time. Kochetkova has a natural dramatic ability - she can move the audience with the forceful accent of an arabesque penchée, the lowering of her arm or with one simple glance. She looks equally at home as the innocent young girl of Act I, Scene I or as the mature, regal princess of Act III. No matter the movement or the scene, Kochetkova pulls you in and makes you akin to her character's journey.

February 14th - This season, Stanford Lively Arts planned a Valentine's Day treat for its subscribers, bringing the dynamically electric Japanese drum company, TAO, for a one-night engagement at Memorial Auditorium. Like “Cirque du Soleil”, “River Dance” and “Stomp” before them, TAO has taken a specific individualized artform and transformed it into a total theatrical experience, merging its musical foundation with sets, costumes, and dance. The result is a rhythmical wonderland mixed with a futuristic undercurrent and a little heavy metal edge.

As evident by their complete commitment and abandon, TAO's drumming is not simply an upper-body exercise but rather a total physical expression. Integrated cyclical motions take over their entire body and the drums become an extension of themselves; the instrument breathing, moving and responding as they do. The company seeks and accomplishes militaristic precision in each moment onstage and for every aspect of the production. Their percussive prowess is met with equally impressive dance acumen: death-defying barrel rolls that were almost horizontal to the stage and a repeated saut de basque/axle jump that soared above the earth.

Alongside the large ensemble numbers were some resourceful and humorous smaller group scenes. In one, the cast was outfitted with paddle-shaped drums and the beat became a ball that they were tossing back and forth, like a game of tennis, ping-pong or badminton. It was a clever way to represent the notion of catching the beat and keeping it alive.

With a two-hour evening of drumming, I expected the sound to get to me after awhile. Surprisingly, there was only one section that I found audibly-challenging (the 'bricks & sticks' vignette); the particular pitch and timbre of those instruments were a little too piercing for a venue the size of Memorial Auditorium.

The company members of TAO are consummate performers – dancers, actors and musicians all rolled into one. As they continue to bring “The Art of the Drum” to more and more audiences during the current US tour, I believe they will develop an even larger following than they have already captured.

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